Contested Indigeneity and Traditionality in Environmental Litigation: The Politics of Expertise in Regional Human Rights Courts


In times when intricate concerns for social and ecological justice are becoming ever more prominent in global environmental discourses, conflicts between minorities’ rights and environmental policies present delicate trade-offs that demand ingenious balancing by regional human rights courts. Such conflicts tend to boil down to oppositions between ‘indigenous’ or ‘traditional’ practices set against ‘modern’ ideals, thereby displaying and performing important normative, epistemic and political implications. To legitimise and strengthen their cases, parties resort to expert interventions. While the involvement of experts speaking on behalf of minorities can bolster the communities’ legal protection, the shared assumptions, rhetorical style and professional sensibility of intervening experts can trigger unintended consequences for the identity and (self-)perception of the peoples they represent. The case-law analysis presented here instantiates how networks of experts with shared institutional ties intervene before courts, use specific discursive strategies to further their representatives’ claims and reinforce the normative salience of their interventions through cross-jurisdictional and cross-cultural referencing. Drawing on insights from discourse analysis, (legal) anthropology and cultural geography, the article develops a critique of the politics of expert-based approaches to conflict management in regional human rights settings.